As Giovanni says, you are standing in front of the site that was most closely associated with criminal justice and punishment in pre-Modern Florence; and incidentally, right by you in the huge baroque building was the city court, only relocated to a new home in 2013. Justice was clearly seen during the Renaissance period as a mediated balance between reward and punishment, and this fortress-like building exemplified the strong arm of justice exerted on the city and its citizens through its bare lower walls, small windows, castellated top and massive fortified tower. The bell that rang here was, with that on the Palazzo della Signoria, the sound marker of civil authority in the city.
The city magistrate and chief of police in Florence and in fact most Italian cities – the podestà – was not a local. In order to avoid biassed rulings, the podestà was a professional lawyer hired in from another part of Italy. They usually brought their own police force with them – which made them all the less popular. The severe building and the high tower provide a menacing view of justice, and the forms of surveillance and control that operated in the city. Capital punishment was the most severe punishment in the pre-modern age, and most executions in fact took place outside the city walls and the aptly named “Gate of Justice”. However, the most heinous crimes – usually treason – were punished by public hanging in the heart of the city, from the windows of this building. A famous sketch by Leonardo da Vinci shows the decomposing body Bernardo Baroncelli – one of the Pazzi conspirators – hung in public to display the demise of an enemy of the state in the most public of ways.
Far more common was the practice of painting portraits of wrong-doers of all sorts on the walls of the Bargello – the so called pitture infamanti. Shaming portraits. These were painted by well known artists, and their actual purpose was that they should provide recognisable portraits that cast shame on the perpetrators of particular crimes, including financial crimes. To an extent of course this is a role that the tabloid media adopt to this day – but it is telling that this was a practice that was enshrined in the statutes of the city. Shame, as Giovanni says, the loss of reputation (fama) was a very heavy penalty to bear.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Crime and punishment’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/3-crime-and-punishment/
Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca-London, 1985)
David Freedberg, The Power of Images. Studies in the history and theory of response (Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1989)
Stephen J. Milner, ‘“Fanno bandire, notificare, et expressamente comandare…”: Town Criers and the Information Economy of Renaissance Florence’, in ‘Experiences of the Street in Early Modern Italy’, eds. Georgia Clarke and Fabrizio Nevola, Special Issue of I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 2013